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Caring for Your Sick Child

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When your child gets sick with a viral infection, such as cold, flu or one of the many respiratory viruses, you can do several things to ease her symptoms and prevent serious complications.

The first step for parents is knowledge. Most of us aren't trained in medical care; we rely on what we remember from our own childhood and from advice from our doctor, family, and friends. Since most viral infections don't require a doctor visit, we're often on our own when treating our child. A quick search for help online can arm us with the knowledge we need to care for a sick child.

The first important bits of information we need are how to distinguish colds from flu and when to take the child to the doctor. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, "Colds and flu are both highly contagious and, in the initial stages, a bad cold and a mild case of the flu might seem alike. However, flu is a serious illness that can have life-threatening complications, unlike colds." The flu usually comes on suddenly and may include these symptoms:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Tiredness/weakness (can be extreme)
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Body or muscle aches
  • Diarrhea and vomiting also can occur, but are more common in children.

About Women's Health has a helpful table for distinguishing colds from flu. Pediatrician Vincent Iannelli advices parents on when to call the doctor, and About Parenting Babies gives suggestions for information you need when calling your doctor. Remember, if you suspect that your child has the flu, you must seek treatment within the first 48 hours in order to receive treatment with antiviral medications such as Tamiflu.

Finally, the CDC lists some emergency warning signs in children that need urgent medical attention:

  • High or prolonged fever
  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Changes in mental status, such as not waking up or not interacting; being so irritable that the child does not want to be held; or seizures
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Worsening of underlying chronic medical conditions (for example, heart or lung disease, diabetes)

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